The Sensational Big M.R. and His All Bitchin’ All Stud All Stars
(Ray Brandes’ exclusive account of a San Diego underground supergroup.)
Part impresario, part cheerleader and all entertainer, Beat Farmer, Penetrator and Crawdaddy Dan McLain had such an impact upon the San Diego music scene in the late â€˜70s and early â€˜80s that it is difficult to imagine how it might have developed without him. Those who knew him well speak of him reverentially — as a forefather, a catalyst and revolutionary. But it was his personality that endeared him to everyone he met.
Joe Piper, guitarist for the Crawdaddys, Decagents and Bogtrotters, remembers McLain fondly: “Easygoing, friendly, funny and personable, he had charisma out the ass. Dan really was one of the most decent, good-natured guys I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. He was an old school kind of guy. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a man’s man. Possibly he’d heard that old saw that a true gentleman will engage in an occupation that risks his life. Would that explain those precarious traverses across beer-slick bar tables like so many ice floes?”
Indeed, McLain had a commanding presence, an almost mythical sense of humor and a powerful charisma that ultimately proved too large to be contained by a provincial town like San Diego. The rest of the world would come to know him as Country Dick Montana, but long before he led the Beat Farmers to international stardom, McLain began developing an onstage persona that would serve as his trademark until his premature passing in 1995 at age 40.
In the late spring of 1980, McLain, who had recently left the Crawdaddys to drum full time for the Penetrators, was restless for yet another outlet for his irrepressible personality. For some time he had been concocting a plan to form a band for a single gig that would consist only of members of current “working” bands in the local punk scene. The band would have a horn section and another drummer so he could sing lead. And he wanted to call it “The Sensational Big M.R. and his All Bitchin’, All Stud, All Stars.” Piper says, “It was pretty much all about promoting a sense of community and camaraderie amongst the guys. Just an excuse to get together and have fun with the boys.”
Penetrators keyboardist and saxophonist Jim Call remembers that the choice of name was not entirely whimsical. “To qualify for membership you had to be in a band — be a â€˜star,’ “ says Call. “You had to be relatively studly. And if you were a studly star, you were by definition â€˜bitchin.’ This idea was all in place before Dan chose anyone. There was very little evolution to the band. The concept arrived, Minerva like, fully formed from Dan’s active imagination. The realization varied very little from the concept.”
Gary Heffern, Penetrators lead singer and All Stars choir member, recalls a particularly strong influence upon McLain. “Dan was a huge Dean Martin fan, and so he wanted to try his hand at showbiz, in a group with horns.” Joe Piper theorizes that a primary impetus for the formation of the All Stars was to provide McLain with a forum to sing Bob McFadden and Dor’s 1959 novelty jazz record, “The Beat Generation”:
Some people like to rock. Some people like to roll.
But me, I like to sit around to satisfy my soul.
I like my women short. I like my women tall.
And that’s about the only thing I really dig at all.
Piper also reminds us that McLain was first and foremost a showman: “He was the first person I knew who really understood he was an entertainer and that, say what you will, when you get up on stage, you’re in show biz. Dan was the first person I knew who truly understood that and owned it and was absolutely unapologetic about it. He was a genuine, generous, thoughtful, funny guy. I believe he also knew that wasn’t reason enough to expect people to fork over their hard earned cash in order to experience â€˜The Wonder of Him’. He knew that he had to reinvent himself into something that people would find entertaining and would ultimately prove popular enough to pay the bills. And so we got Monty Rocker, The Sensational Big M.R, and Country Dick.”
McLain sent word to his friends in local bands, enlisting the services of some of the scene’s most recognizable faces. Guitarists Mark Neill from the Unknowns and David Farage from DFX2 were among the first to join. The Penetrators’ Chris Sullivan (bass) Tim from Private Sector (drums) and a horn section, dubbed the Stax of Sax and consisting of Call and Mark from Private Sector were recruited. A choir, featuring the vocal talents of Heffern, the Unknowns’ Bruce Joyner and DFX2’s Douglas Farage, rounded out the line-up.
Rehearsals were held at McLain and Heffern’s infamous punk rock house in Chollas View, near 54th and Redwood Streets, and were well-lubricated to say the least. Jim Call remembers that the band members took the All Stud moniker quite seriously. “There was lots of beer, and plenty of bourbon drinkers too. It was understood that the drinking should be manly. As such, there were no wine coolers, or Mai Tais, or flavored anything. Whiskey and beer were de rigeur.”
The term “rehearsal” is perhaps a bit too precise for what Call describes as “lurching approximations of songs.” Call says, “We were all from DIY punk and new wave San Diego bands. Some of us had very limited skills on our instruments. Many of us, really. There were some who had been in bands predating that era and were a little more accomplished. Those guys were the ones who first picked out the chords and beat — and the rest just tried to keep up as best we could. Arranging consisted of trying really hard to make it sound â€˜right.’ “
The project was clearly McLain’s baby from conception onwards. Call says, “There was nothing democratic about it. We all deferred to Dan. We all knew he was on to something special.”
McLain chose the songs, which dealt largely with “manly themes,” and which often had to be adjusted to fit his basso profundo. These tunes included Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” and “Mondo,” a perverse reworking of Lorne Greene’s 1964 novelty record “Ringo,” with new lyrics about a masturbation contest. There were a couple of times, however, when McLain allowed some of the Studs to make song suggestions. According to Penetrators bassist Chris Sullivan, “I do remember saying that we had to do Elvis’s â€˜Burnin’ Love,’ or I wouldn’t play. Dan said something like, â€˜Fine Mr. Loverboy, we will do Burnin’ Love — just keep all your Surf Bunnies at high tide!’”
The band, officially named The Sensational Big M.R. and his All Bitchin’ All Stud All Stars, made its debut performance on Saturday, June 7, 1980, at the Zebra Club with Canadian punk band the Subhumans. The All Stars muscled through the aforementioned songs, plus exuberant versions of Gene Vincent’s “Cruisin’ “ and Conway Twitty’s “Lonely Blue Boy.” The packed club jeered, shouted and sang along. Heffern remembers, “Dan told all the girls to start screaming — so they did! I think everyone either liked it or was confused by it, but it was a definitely a defining moment of the making of Country Dick.”
Call adds, “The band, 13 unwieldy punk-rock musicians, was anything but tight. But we played with pretend booze-fueled gusto and punk rock enthusiasm and it was obvious to all that we were having a grand time — most of all the Big M.R. himself.”
For the group’s second performance, a show at the North Park Lions Club on Friday, July 18, 1980 with Four Eyes and the Targets, there were a few line-up changes. Joe Piper replaced Mark Neill on guitar, and Doug Farage was added to the horn section. The chorus now consisted of Heffern, the Crawdaddys’ Mark Zadarnowski, and the Decagents’ Randy Landis. Zadarnowski describes the show: “We were received well, in sort of a rowdy fashion with lots of just for fun heckling from the audience and banter back and forth.”
Zadarnowski remembers that in keeping with the spirit of the evening, “Lou Skum just decided on his own accord that he wanted to be part of it and jumped up to the side of the stage with an acoustic guitar and played along. Nobody bothered to chase him off.” At some point in the evening a trash can was thrown on stage, its contents emptied. Heffern artfully dodged the large metal flying object midsong. Zadarnowski continues: “This was also in the days of slam dancing and all the associated violence. At one point it appeared to me that (my girlfriend) Lydia might be getting hurt, so I dove off the stage into the middle of it. Ultimately the band stopped, and with the help of Chris Sullivan and a couple of others the incident was cooled down.”
The band’s third and planned “final command performance” took place at Jerry Herrera’s Spirit Club on Saturday, August 30, 1980. By now the group was a revolving cast, depending on who wasn’t on the road, or who had the time. There were also a few new additions to the stage show. “I had played bass in the first two, and then didn’t have the time to rehearse for the others,” says Chris Sullivan. “So Mark Williams and I were the body guards for Dan in the next one or two. We stood behind Dan with leather gloves and sunglasses and tried to look menacing.”
Mark Zadarnowski replaced Sullivan on bass, and Gary Heffern took on a new role as well: “I was â€˜the coach,’ so they had me dress up like a coach in a sweatshirt and carrying towels. They put something in my hair to make it white and I had to wear glasses.” To complement the onstage ambience Dan was now donning an Elvis-style, gold lame jacket lent to him by Heffern.
Party at Western Audio
One week later, in September 1980, the ragtag band of musicians arrived at Western Audio in Kearny Mesa to record three songs. A few weeks earlier, McLain had somehow convinced the owner of the studio to allow his group of “all-star musicians from San Diego’s top bands” to record for free, as a way of promoting Western Audio to major local acts. The owners fell for the ruse, and the recording session was booked.
The ultra-modern, state-of-the-art, 24-track studio became the source of much amusement to the band, who were not used to such a professional environment. “It was just fun, like a big party,” says Zadarnowski. “Lots of jokes were flying about the wood paneling, plants and mirrors.” Joe Piper also remembers a party-like atmosphere. “Not a wild & crazy, out-of-control party,” he says, “but a party. It still managed to be an efficient, organized recording session. The songs were pretty much recorded live. I do remember having a great time playing Beatles songs in the lobby with a bunch of people while overdubs were being done.”
Amidst the joking and the drinking, the band managed to record three songs: “Burnin’ Love,” “Beat Generation,” and “Who Do You Love” with Mark Neil, David Farage and Joe Piper trading guitar leads. A couple of days later, McLain and Piper returned to the studio for an afternoon mixing session. McLain had decided that “Who Do You Love” needed some more drunken ambience in the break and he wanted to add some bar room atmosphere like Gram Parsons had done on “Medley Live from Northern Quebec” on his “Grevious Angel” album. “Initially, the engineer objected to opening up the studio,” Piper recalls. “He was only booked to do a mixing session. But Dan brought his considerable charm to bear and soon Dan, the engineer, me – were in the studio rolling some bottles around on a table and making noises.”
A final show took place at the Spirit on December 7, 1980, with Rank â€˜n’ File and the Crawdaddys (last-minute replacement for the Jim Wood’s band the Cokers). Joe Piper remembers another uninvited guest made an appearance onstage. “Mid-performance, a shit-faced Jim McInnes lumbered on stage, plugged a guitar into my amp and started flailing away,” says Piper. “As soon as we finished the song we were playing, I went back and turned him down to zero. He was so fucked up he never even noticed!”
Although this would be the last performance billed as the Sensational Big MR and his All Bitchin’ All Stud All Stars, McLain’s project would, in the next year, evolve into the Pleasure Barons — not to be confused with a later supergroup of the same name McLain founded with Dave Alvin and Mojo Nixon. The original Pleasure Barons included such illustrious names as Joyce Rooks (the Trousers); Skid Roper (the Evasions); Joey Harris (Fingers); Chris Davies (the Penetrators); Nino del Pesco (the Puppies); and Jerry Raney (the Shames). Following the Pleasure Barons, McLain would play the Spring Valley Inn with Robin Jackson, Nino Del Pesco, Paul Kamanski and Joey Harris, billed as Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies. When Harris left the Bunnies in 1983 to devote himself to promoting the Speedsters’ album, McLain formed the Beat Farmers with Jerry Raney, Buddy Blue and Rollie Love.
Not surprisingly, most of the participants have only vague memories of the All Stars rehearsals and performances. However hazy, these shows were an important first step in the development of the Country Dick persona and eventual Beat Farmers stage act. Jim Call nicely summarizes the band’s impact on audiences fortunate enough to see one of the four performances: “I still think Steve Esmedina was most apt when he said watching the All-Studs was a little like seeing â€˜a favorite uncle dance around with a lampshade on his head.’ And what was it? It wasn’t Young, Loud, and Snotty. It wasn’t Jocko Homo. It wasn’t a bar cover band. It almost seemed anti-punk. It was completely unexpected in that time and place. But the large crowd would meet us part way. They all entered into the jumped-up spirit of the thing. It was a hilarious spectacle. It was completely party.”
The real legacy of the All Bitchin’ All Stud All Stars, however, is that it was an important early step towards building a community of San Diego musicians. It was also a beautiful illustration one man’s ability to envision, direct and create an entirely original spectacle and ultimately turn himself into a tongue-in-cheek, mythological hero.
— Ray Brandes
Photos, flyers and audio used courtesy of Mark Zadarnowski and Joe Piper. Photo of ABASAS at North Park Lions Club by Harold Gee.